New Year – Tywyn, Wales

A bunch of us, and latterly our children, have been booking holiday cottages together for new year for a decade now. This year was probably the most scenic so far, in a former farm up on the hills to the north-east of Bryncrug. After a wet and unbelievably windy start to the week, the weather turned very cold and clear, then snowy, then clear again, transforming our valley in a matter of hours.

Matt and I finally made it to the top of Cadair Idris, our third attempt, this time in fairly deep snow and sheet ice near the summit.

On our way up:

The summit, trig point just visible through the fog and snow:

On our way down:

A few days later we walked to Dolgoch Falls:

Met a snowstorm on the top of Mynydd Tan-y-Coed:

which was thankfully local and short-lived, giving us beautiful views seaward to the west :

although finding our way down wasn’t so easy:

Broadstairs is so lovely

This weekend started with winning a pub quiz. I guess we are all getting along a bit and have a fair few facts under our belts.

Then on Saturday we went to the seaside. About six drinkers-without-incumbents were supposed to be going, but in the end I fucked up on some dates and it was Matt, ‘Midge’ and me on the train at Victoria. The queues to get tickets were stupid, I mean stupid*. Nobody would tell me whether there would be a revenue collector on the train, I knew if we got fined I would seethe for the entire weekend, so I queued, commiserated with the similarly-discount-entitled pensioners behind me, loudly declaring that They would drive me back onto the roads, and planning arguments to persuade Matt and Midge to sit in First Class.

We were going to Broadstairs, Thanet, Kent. Unlike much of the South East coast there’s sand (which I prefer) and not only that, there’s everything else you might want at the seaside. There are flower-strung chalk cliffs, a lighthouse, smuggling history, several bays each with its own character and features including rock pools, surfing, hewn tidal swimming pool – well-placed toilets, festive beach huts and the Dickens Museum (Bleak House is there). The restaurants are mostly fish and chips and Italian. So despite intentions to explore, when we go to the seaside in our corner of England we almost invariably end up in Broadstairs – and if the tide is in  (unlike here) Stone Bay is good for swimming.

So we got to the town, had a veggie burger and the best chips I’d had all year sitting up on the cliff-top footpath in the town looking out to sea, backed by the fragrant roses overflowing through the railings of a little public garden, bathed in hot sunlight and flanked by two men singing unfeasible A-ha covers, accompanying themselves with a banjo and a guitar. The Irish women to our left sung along loudly and demanded Irish songs, to which one of the men lied “But all our songs are Irish”. Although I laughed a lot and sung choruses thickly through my chips, I managed to not spit any food down myself that day – Matt and I have been shaking our heads in disbelief recently, finding ourselves daubed in ketchup, sprinkled with crisp crumbs, mushy peas etc.

Then Matt and Midge extracted authorisation to watch the rugby in the Barnaby Rudge. I had an hour paddling and lying on the beach looking straight up at the gulls and kites in my field of vision and listening to the squeaking of the children. Wetsuits seem to have come down in price. Good idea at this time of year. The weather was perfect – hot sun, cool breeze, warming sand. I returned just as a very young man retched up a blue pool – of Wkd, I’d guess – on the steps. After a brief conflab, I decided to get Matt and me some swimming stuff, cos stupidly we’d assumed we couldn’t swim because, well, this is England and there are icebergs until the last two weeks in August. Midge had brought his. One thing I learnt this weekend (from a slightly uncertain source in a shop which dealt in homeopathy) is that beyond about factor 20 you don’t get much benefit from sun cream, that most of the benefit is anyway through reflection.

England lost the rugby by a whisker on the last goal-thing. Shrug.

Back to Stone Bay we went. The tide was starting to go out (it gets hard to swim at that bay when the tide’s out because of the rocks, but while it’s in, it is a beautiful sandy beach). Matt and I went in while Midge minded our stuff. I’m not sure why it was so warm. Perhaps there was a sandbank in the bay which had allowed the sun to warm the water. The sands round Thanet move a lot, which is why there’ve been so many wrecks. Anyway, it was lovely, and we played with the frisbee and swam for a long time.

Then our friends who live in a nearby village arrived and took us back to their place. We ate at their local pub, then after that closed, sat in their garden looking up at the layers of stars and counting satellites. We slept in their tent because their house is a building site at the moment. It was fresh but there was a double sleeping bag. Fantastic if short night’s sleep woken by the heat at about 7 (opened all the flaps), the lakeland terrier at 8 and some abysmally-rung church bells at 9. We decided to have a barbequed breakfast, and by the time that was finished and washed up in the bath it was 2. We got on a train at some station in the middle of nowhere at about quarter to four and back by 6.30.

The weather remained better than good. This is your English summer; you’d be mad to go anywhere else**.

* I have a goldcard which entitles me to 33% off and my fare up to boundary Zone 4. I have to queue and buy a ticket from a ticket officer in order to get this discount. I can’t win – either they rob my time or they rob my cash. Bastard Network Rail. Anyway, the queue for the Quick Ticket machines were also mad. And you know, after all that, how much my discount was? 55p. 55p. And the moral of this story is a) check prices on the web to see what your discount is and b) buy your ticket far in advance and have it delivered.

** We are going to Green Man again, this time better equipped. A Lazy Joe camping chair and rubberised army surplus hooded poncho, plus (possibly) modern beach windbreak. Green Man is of course in Wales.

The Inn Way to the Yorkshire Dales: to-take list; vegan tribulations

It’s that time again when Matt and I prepare for our spring walk – this year a gentle 70 mile totter round the Inns of the Yorkshire Dales with B, if he permitted leave from designing a certain embassy to withstand explosive attacks.

Update: we did it.

The route is Mark Reid’s:

  • Stage 1 – Grassington to Buckden
  • Stage 2 – Buckden to Askrigg
  • Stage 3 – Askrigg to Reeth
  • Stage 4 – Reeth to West Burton
  • Stage 5 – West Burton to Kettlewell
  • Stage 6 – Kettlewell to Grassington

It’s that time when once I again I phone round the inns where we are staying each night, to break the news – which I usually get the impression is bad news – that I am vegan.

Vegetable sandwiches.

Jam sandwiches.

“Can you bring something with you?”

Faintly down the line, “Yeah, we’ll do her something.”

Please, more than a salad.

No, it’s not that I don’t like salad, it’s just that we’re walking a long way.

Why are they, while baulking at my request, telling me they cater for vegetarians, coeliacs and lactose intolerance?

Can I tell them I’ll relax about the small print of the ingredients of their bread without them thinking I’ll relax about cream in my risotto?

Fazed as these small business owners tend to be, I hardly have the heart to ask for nuts or pulses. I come back from these walks nutritionally depleted and missing London where, thanks to the enlightened, the health-conscious and the religious, I eat well.

The computer with my to-take list is at vets, so I’m writing it again.


  • 30 litre pack
  • Waterproof pack liner
  • Map case
  • OS Explorer maps
  • Compass
  • Walking books
  • Poles
  • Penknife
  • Bivy bag and space blanket
  • 2 water bottles
  • fire


  • Pants
  • Socks
  • Walking boots
  • Sandles
  • Flip flops
  • Walking bra
  • Evening bra
  • Walking trousers
  • Evening trousers
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Walking t-shirt
  • Evening shirt
  • Fleece
  • Waterproof coat
  • Baseball cap
  • Gaiters


  • MP3 player, earphones
  • GPS
  • Phone
  • Camera
  • Chargers: camera, phone, battery, USB charger adaptor
  • Rechargeable AA batteries for GPS
  • Wind-up torch/radio/charger
  • Watch


  • Plasters
  • Antiseptic cream
  • First aid kit
  • Second skin blister dressing
  • Tea-tree oil
  • Painkillers
  • Energy: sweets, seeds, nuts, dried fruit
  • Vitamin supplements
  • Sunglasses


  • Biodegradable wash for everything
  • Factor 50 sun cream
  • Aloe vera gel
  • Contact lenses and solution
  • Glasses case
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Floss
  • Hair conditioner
  • Deodorant
  • Hairband
  • Razor
  • Travel towel
  • Comb
  • Handkerchief


  • A book (perhaps a Bronte? More likely Roth’s Plot Against America)
  • Cash
  • Credit cards
  • Cheque book
  • Printed contact details and detail maps of where we have booked to stay (put these on the web)
  • Receipts for deposits
  • Clear plastic bags, plastic bags for dirty stuff
  • Eyeliner

Manchester, it’s physical

The morning after ET and BT’s wedding I left early to meet a friend M and see My Bloody Valentine at the Manchester Apollo. We had a hairy moment changing at at Sheffield where the platform signs had been replaced by mercurial dot matrix displays which meant that 2C wasn’t anywhere like the other side of 2B… 2C, which was anchored in place by a legacy hard sign, was far, far the other side of 2A. “Will the station manager please make his way to Platform 2C for his tribunal.” Anyway, we made it with literally 2 seconds to spare. The train was a diesel bus thing which took us across The Peaks. There was a school outing – we saw about 10 little girls get off and reunite with their families. M and I were friends when we were school children (different schools) and we went to Manchester University at the same time. Neither of us had ever been to The Peaks – M said she never really left the B5117 (Oxford Road turning into Wilmslow Rd) except for a broad lolly-pop-shaped shopping circuit at the top. I used to get as far as Prestwich (family) and I seem to remember going to Cream in Liverpool.

I think Manchester on a Saturday night in summer is best expressed by the lyrics to Forget Myself by Elbow.

I’d got us a double room at the very top of the Britannia on Portland Street. We had a huge room-width, waist-to-ceiling sloping window looking up and back at The Peaks.

There were Canal St queens everywhere – absolutely everywhere. On every landing somebody was adjusting a garter or putting on lipstick. It was very cheering.

We ate at a buffet in China Town whose name I forget, but they did me tofu in black bean sauce for free. For dessert I had watermelon and lychees. M had the same but with some kind of whipped product on top.

My Bloody Valentine were extremely good. Kevin Shields and Belinda Butcher were small, still figures pulsing with light and sound. They’re all still too deaf to realise that the sound’s so bad you can hardly even pick out the tunes. You don’t recover from that kind of aural damage I suppose. Kevin Shields spent the whole evening in front of his amp. And for the finale for their last song, ‘You Made Me Realise‘, they tried to deafen us with a 25 minute marathon of shapeless noise widely referred to as ‘the holocaust at the end’. I’d been warned in advance from several quarters to accept earplugs so for 25 minutes I enjoyed the pleasantly evocative sensation of being underwater in the bath with the taps on and a wheezing boiler. Memories of my third year house in Rusholme washed through me and I passed the time reminiscing and surreptitiously looking at photos of ET and BT’s wedding. Meanwhile the occasional glance back showed the faces of the fans gradually taking on expressions of hurt, their fingers creeping to their ears. I imagined My Bloody Valentine sitting around backstage laughing at us – “Those fawning twats, they even stick around when we make their ears bleed”. Or, with the bitterness of the past-it rocker, “We’ll see to it that they never hear another fucking band after us”. Every piece of my flesh which wasn’t taut undulated with sound. My chest was quivering and my trouser legs fluttered. They broke in and pummelled my organs. By the end some of the people without earplugs were shifting from foot to foot in paroxysms of discomfort. I was uplifted. Here’s something similar to what my camera mic picked up:

Actually, what you hear is the scratchy ear-wrecking stuff my earplugs stripped out, but it gives quite a faithful impression. Anyway, this is what all MBV live recordings sound like. By the end we must have looked like kicked puppies. Everybody was so relieved when they eventually got tired and stopped that we gave them generous appreciation, but we could hardly hear ourselves clapping. Still, My Bloody Valentine are a brilliant band, nothing like them in the world and they make you feel like nothing else in the world. I got a t-shirt, for old time’s sake.

We walked back feeling massaged and happy. We wanted to walk for a bit so I went to the toilet in our hotel. There was a wedding reception and in the toilet two women were looking after a third. They’d propped her against the wall and were trying to persuade her to put her shoes back on. Then we went to the Spar for provisions and I was indecently groped by a revolting drunk. This took me right back to another time I was pawed on Oxford Rd and I bravely chased the man into Platt Fields threatening to knock his teeth down his throat. This time I didn’t do anything because I value my own teeth. We went back to the Britannia – women on Portland St were dressed like nothing I’ve seen in my life. Such bottoms. Such upper arms. Such decolletage. I like it when big women, ignoring Keira Knightly, dress tight. A man in jeans and white t-shirt with a boyish crop bent and removed a pair of black 4 inch stilettos and sprinted through broken glass for his coach. A car pulled level so a man could show us his naked behind out of the back window. The other men in the car were singing to us – the chorus of something suggestive – and pointing. There were queens of all shapes and sizes adorning the street, the hotel steps, the stairs and the landings. I walked up the stairs to feel the carpet on my feet and see the sparkle of the gilt and chandeliers. The Britannia is a great and colossal hotel.

Looking up from the lobby

M and I sat and talked, then got into bed and talked. We could hear (C)anal (S)treet a below, the comforting noise of a party downstairs. M was talking in a very loud voice because she was still deafened. Men in the next room had sex rampantly – their first of at least four orgasms, at a rate of roughly one every half hour, happened as we were talking about pies. During the next one we were trying to work out what colour the sky was. I slept with my ear plugs in.

The next morning I went out for a walk. I said good morning to a rotund man on the landing who was dressed as a ballerina. “It’s still night for me, love”, he replied. While I was waiting for the lift to deliver M to the lobby, a man saw me see him nearly knock another guest to the floor with his enormous shoulder bag. He explained that it was lucky it hadn’t been his handbag because that was twice the size. I responded politely, “That’s some handbag!” and he said “Yes, it’s good for putting dead bodies in.” And then he left.

We had an early lunch at the Manchester Art Gallery, then we had a look at the Pre-Raphaelites. Then, during a break in the rain, we went to pick up our bags, and then to Piccadilly Station, into seats with a table on a Virgin Pendolino and back to Euston without event.

Myanmar, Beirut, Frinton, Clacton, Stratford, Israel and Jews responding to ad hominems

Matt’s and my donation eventually went to the Disaster Emergency Committee for Myanmar. The coordinated response to the Myanmar junta’s fatal negligence of its stricken millions is too-slowly coalescing round the UN ‘duty to protect’ resolution. Nick Cohen comments. My MP Lee Scott’s response was succinctly fatalistic – he did not give me to believe that he would be looking for opportunities to coordinate internationally on getting aid and expertise into Myanmar.

There is also a parallel call for donations straight to Myanmar’s monks on the basis that they are best-placed to distribute the aid. Matt and I gave to the experts at DEC in the hope that they are equipped to make good decisions about getting my donation to its recipients, via the monks if need be.

Like Israel, but more vulnerably, Lebanon is a little-noted democracy in the Middle East. For a while it looked as if Hesbollah was attempting a putsch in Beirut, but either they failed or they were flexing their muscles to intimidate the government of Fouad Siniora. Despite their aspirations to power, Hesbollah operatives function outside government. This week marked a turning point in their relations with Lebanon – they turned the guns, which they swore would only ever be aimed only at Israel, inwards. The Observer encourages us to view this as Sunni-Shiah infighting – what about Lebanon’s Christians and democrats? Hesbollah political aid Ali Hassan Khalil is calling this ‘civil disobedience‘ but 24 people have died. Anyway, what does Lebanon owe to Hesbollah, who spurn the democratic government, who are the only terrorist group permitted to keep its weapons after Israel pulled out of Lebanon, who promptly turned them onto Northern Israel again leading Israel to attack in 2006 with enormous collatoral deaths and damage. Hesbollah say that Siniora’s is a puppet government of the imperialists. Nasrallah is reported to have said last Friday that the ruling coalition were “Israelis dressed in suits and speaking Arabic”. This is the rationale – calling the elected government proxy Israelis amounts in Hesbollah language to license to wreck and kill them. I know who I support – the democrats every time.

Yesterday Matt and I took ourselves to the seaside. It was originally going to be our local Southend but then curiosity impelled us to the nationalist monocultural stronghold of Frinton-on-Sea and from there a walk either north on the marshes to Walton-on-the-Naze or south to Clacton. While waiting for the toilet on the train I asked the man next to me if he was going to Frinton – no, he was going to Clacton where his brother lives. He intimated that the men of Clacton are dangerously belligerent of a weekend evening. We eventually struck out for Clacton along a beach strewn with bathers, loungers, lovers, comic toddlers and, once outside Frinton, highly entertaining dogs. At Clacton the boys had that gelled baby-bird hair I love and everybody was lobster red. It was more like a Barkingside-on-Sea but prettier, trashier and more faded all at the same time. Nobody was fighting. On station road we saw a staggering number of adjacent estate agents lining both sides of the road for 100 metres at least.

When we got back into Stratford that evening I thought it but it was Matt who said that he much more at home in St Ratford than he did in Frinton / Clacton. Me too. In Stratford everybody is an outsider. St Ratford is cosmopolitan and so, increasingly, is Barkingside. That makes things better. My home nestles between Nigerian Catholics (from two different tribes); they butt onto the Hindu Patels. Across the road is an English / African family. Jews next to them. Ghanaians beyond. South Africans the other side. Then Alan who is straight up English. And so on. The last thing I see before the road bends is a flagpole. The man in that house flies the George Cross and, occasionally, a jolly roger.

In Stratford gaggles of adolescents bounded and skittered round the shopping centre chattering like starlings. The shopping centre at Stratford is a thoroughfare between the station and the theatre and cinema. It’s warm, dry, lit and protected by CCTV. It’s a good place to spend time with your friends at night if there’s nowhere else and you’re too young for the pub – especially in winter.

On the Central Line on the way back I noticed the Dome of the Rock winking at me from an abandoned copy of the Guardian. It is Israel’s anniversary and in the stuff I read this has mostly been the occasion for intense vilification of Israel (and Israel’s advocates). Disappointingly the author of the piece was one of Israel’s most serious attackers, Jacqueline Rose. I am still getting through the piece – it seems she cherry-picks and appropriates self-critical Israeli fictional writing and presses them into the service of her pre-existing anti-Zionist narrative. It’s worth a response, but I can’t do it now.

A large proportion of the attacks on Israel – and these days when the attacks emanate from people outside Israel or Palestine, and unless they explicitly dissociate themselves, I’m inclined to lump them together whether they be on matters of Israel’s policies and strategies or on its very existence – have bad reasons.

Some people believe that if you can solve the Israel/Palestine conflict you will take the energy out of Al Qaeda’s terrifying war against democracy, women’s emancipation, free speech, &tc. Or failing that, if you can distance yourself from anything that might be construed as support for Israel, you won’t cop any flak yourself. This leads to a lot of ostentatious appeasement in the form of loud condemnation of Israel.

Others like the key people in Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Jewish Anti-Zionists, Jewish Socialist Group and Jacqueline Rose’s organisation, Independent Jewish Voices, feel that Israel reflects badly on them as Jews and tarnishes their reputation in society. This also leads to showy condemnation of Israel, but this time ostentatiously as Jews. Most Jewish identity pro-Palestinian activists feel personally responsible for the way Israel behaves towards Palestinians. Why this should lead to undermining Israel’s existence rather than certain of Israel’s policies and strategies (about which very few of Israel’s detractors inform themselves sufficiently to comment on) is complicated – may be to do with an idealised view of Jews as morally superior, may be to do with an overarching anti-imperialist bent which finds simplistic expression in acts against Israel, may be a personal attempt, as a Jew, to personally move beyond the Holocaust, may be to do with something else.

Wherever intense scrutiny of Israel is mainstream, as in Britain, all of the above lead to an intensification of scrutiny on Jews which manifests itself in political tests and accusations of that Jews lie and obfuscate to defend Israel from a scrutiny which everybody else perceives as entirely justified. Only last night somebody told me that if I wasn’t Jewish I would feel differently about the Israel-Palestine conflict. This kind of insinuation of untrustworthiness presents Jews with at least two possible responses. You can take the IJV, JfJfP, JSG, JAZ option and try to mollify or defuse your detractors by proving that you personally, or you and your friends, are not biased. You can ostentatiously organise activity which looks to be against the interest of the clan you have been lumped together with. I don’t like that response because it doesn’t address the racism of the detractors. It accepts the charge of Jewish clannishness and seeks distance. Moreover it has no understanding for clannishness and no sense of social factors. This is a very sanctimonious response.

I think it was Hoffer who wrote in ‘The True Believer’ that mass movements can’t survive without a devil. The international movement to support Palestinians is one such movement, as illustrated by the slogans of the boycotters at the Turin Book Fair this week (‘Boycott Israel – Support Palestine’). This climate of demonisation is the reason I take the other choice of response, which is to try to challenge ad hominem arguments about the motives or trustworthiness of those Jews who speak up against the demonising vilification of Israel.

London to Berlin by sleeper

For my birthday before last Matt took us to Amsterdam on the ferry from Harwich. It was my first time on a ferry and it was amazing.

It’s Matt’s birthday in April and I’ve booked us a trip to Berlin. Don’t worry about me spilling the beans – he doesn’t read this blog (I brief him on everything each night in a non-stop stream-of-consciousness which only abates when I see his eyes begin to roll back into their sockets). Besides – this is awful – I ruined the surprise in an unguarded moment a couple of weeks back when somebody asked us what we were doing for the Easter break.

The exciting thing about the trip is that we’re going by train. We leave early evening on 17th from St Pancras, arriving in Brussels to connect with the overnight sleeper which will get us to Berlin early morning on 18th. On the way back we’ll spend the day in Brussels.

I got the details from The Man in Seat 61. He provides up-to-date information about how to travel from Britain to anywhere in the world by train and boat – a very useful resource for ‘slow travellers‘.

Ever since I can remember it’s been my ambition to go on a sleeper train and I’m extremely excited. So is Matt, it goes without saying.
Now, find accommodation.

New Year resumé

We and our children stayed in a couple of converted barns in Shropshire about 10 minutes’ drive south of Bridgnorth. This time according to the (after all sensible) decision of the parents we split into an atrociously overcrowded family house (3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 3 couples, 4 kids, 6 dining chairs) and a guiltily spacious no-kids / singles place (me, Matt, B, as well as A for 3 nights and C&T for New Year’s Eve). All the partying took place in the other house so we could look after the tots.

The barns were not bad – mixture of Ikea and old wooden furniture, some pretty bedrooms, nice lighting, Velux windows and plenty warm. The low point was the waterproof sheet which meant that Matt cooked us like dim sum every night until I ripped it off, and a squishy bed which rolled us together in our steaming pool of sweat. The high point was the tiny shower room with enormous radiator. There were 5 related grey stripey cats, 3 horses, 2 pigs, a goat that looked like a pig and a pond full of carp which we left alone despite the free fishing permit.

On New Year’s Eve C&T arrived with – naturally – a box of wigs. We had a massive Indian take-out and played games including partnered one-handed present wrapping and one which worked better last time but was still pretty funny involving different people reading aloud sentences from different bad novels and progressing through in parallel – a mixture of Jackie Collins and Biggles works best, probably. Also our old faithful squeak piggy squeak and the After Eight game. An insistent woman from one of the other cottages we’d politely been turning down for the past 24 hours turned up at about 7.00 for 3 glasses of wine and yet again at quarter to twelve with her 3 teenagers which was a bit strange but we were trollied by then and got over it. I mostly drank Marstons beer and rum with chocolate soya milk and creme de menthe all week. Everyone in our house got a virus except me – I can’t remember the last time I had a cold, we’re talking years and I keep tempting fate.

We watched only a couple of films – Crash (the Paul Haggis one – I think it’s great but it cleared the room!) and Spike Lee’s Inside Man which I really enjoyed. Much game playing as is the case when family commitments keep you in the house instead of the pub. Over the course of the week we played Articulate, Balderdash and a pub quiz from Matt’s mum and dad, which for some reason had to be boys v. girls with much gloating and ill feeling over the course of it. Girls won, thank the lord. There was a thread of male piggishness throughout the week with Nuts, Zoo and Maxim appearing all at once in my barn on the second day. I acted more horrified than I actually was to compensate for the general over-tolerance by the others (no women). But actually they were horrifying, particularly the ‘How to Shag Like a Super Hero’ feature in Maxim. Reading it I almost felt as if I were a different species of human. At that stage I began to entertain the idea of making 2008 my Year of Women instead of Year of Animals. Women v. Animals – an unhappy choice for a vegan. A choice of my own arbitrary fabrication, admittedly.

M, B and I walked a lot with whomever could get away. The last one, an 8-mile circular walk on Long Mynd from Church Stretton, was magnificent. We climbed along Carding Mill Valley in light snow for maybe a mile. It was hard to drink our water because it had got so cold that it altered your core temperature quite alarmingly but it was beautiful to see the bright snow showers across the valleys and peaks.

We were investigating a frozen pond when we met a local woman and her husband. She was home for Christmas from Chile where she works on a European astronomy project. She was finding it hard for various reasons including that she couldn’t use the telescope for the kind of work she was interested in – it was dedicated to different projects and minutely accounted for in five-minute slots. The other problem was that she was 28, wanted to start a family but was on short-term contracts with little hope of gaining tenure unless she worked hard on her publications for the next 7 years or so. Junior astronomers have to be very mobile. She said that most of them are men whose wives and girlfriends are lower-paid, less-skilled and generally more moveable. The women on the other hand tend to have partners who are equally or more skilled – her husband was an economist who had not found work in Chile. She said that the tiny minority of women who make it in astronomy are the ones who are in a position to, and inclined to, behave like men – postpone or forego a family and move their partner around with them. If you want to have anything to do with the nursery it’s still hard to be a woman – you end up in the kitchen again. So she was expecting to leave astronomy. We talked for about a mile but then they peeled off down Ashes Hollow.

We turned towards Little Stretton in a scouring wind. I had brought my balaclava along for a joke but as it worked out I wore it all the way down while the others spent a mile swearing as their faces were flayed by a -1° wind carrying tiny pellets of snow.

Instead of going ahead and having it ready by the time we caught up we were all supposed to stop for what promised to be about half an hour so B could cook a pot noodle on a mountain in wind by heating up near-freezing water on some kind of tin stove. To my relief and silent deadpan satisfaction his survival matches all failed and we just ate our sandwiches (at Barrister’s Plain) in 10 minutes losing heat like bastards. By the time we started again I couldn’t feel my fingertips. Compared to B there’s a lot I’m not keen on doing for a story.

There’s still a tyre swing in the woods coming back into Church Stretton. And I still can’t lift my own body weight.

I fucked up most of my photos again. Lots of kit, not much know-how. Sigh.

Matt has a new company car, a Citroen C4 which is the most comfortable thing I’ve driven in ages. It’s an automatic with a funny manual option where you change gears with paddles on the steering wheel. To me driving feels like being in an arcade game – I absolutely detest it and only do it out of fairness to Matt. I picked him up an iTrip for his new iPod but it quickly became apparent that the pirate stations in London have used up practically the whole spectrum making it hard to find a reliable space for the iPod to broadcast to the car stereo. They don’t tell you that. Outside London it’s much better.

All in all it was a good week and I’m sorry it’s over.

The weekend – pub crawl, Hogarth and Hainault Forest

Eventful. Matt’s birthday pubcrawl began at the Black Friar at Blackfriars with the intention of progressing up to The Jerusalem Tavern in Farringdon. The method was, a web site I really rate highly. Significantly, thinking about it, it’s not a Web2.0 phenomenon – at least not in the ‘social’ sense anyway, though they’re mashing up google maps these days to present their pub walks. Each fancyapint review is by a single unattributed author and there’s no discussion, which I prefer rather than, say, beerintheevening, where the qualitative review consists only of unmoderated discussion. First rule of discussion boards: have somebody ‘weaving’ the contributions together at regular interviews, and make these woven posts prominent. Anyway, I made another A4 with a googlemap and integrated fancyapint reviews in textboxes, and we we got through 4 of those – the aforementioned Black Friar, The Cockpit on St Andrew’s Hill (nice staff, evocative setting, nice mouse!), The Olde Cheshire Cheese just off Fleet St (I always think I don’t like this pub and invariably find it charming – the Sam Smith booze is vegan too), and the Star Inn on Carey St behind the Royal Courts of Justice (great pub). Good night.

Saturday Matt and I decided to catch Hogarth at Tate Modern. Whopping £27 for tickets and audiotour – and unlike Amsterdam’s Reichsmuseum with the mellifluous local actor who had been visiting the museum all his life first with his grandfather and lately as a grandfather, the tour wasn’t very good. I was dismayed when we entered at the number of people crowding round the works and couldn’t imagine how I was going to get close enough to them to see the detail (you have to get very close to a Hogarth modern moral subject to see the syphillis lesions or roving hands for example). It got slightly better as people spread out at their different paces, but I spent a lot of time queueing and it took me two and a half hours to get round. I don’t know art. Rembrandt was a better painter, though. If you look closely at Rembrandt’s suggestive brushwork it looks more deliberate than Hogarth’s. Hogarth’s engraving and etching is wonderful, but there’s a crudeness to his paintings that’s nothing to do with their down-to-earth subjects. My favourites were his narrative works – the Harlot’s and Rake’s Progress, Four Stages of Cruelty. Also Gin Lane and Beer Street. Before and After held me for ages – the bestial urgency of the bedchamber rapist and the panic of the women – who, complacently alone with the men in a bedchamber and alternatively the wild woods, clearly have urges of their own which unlike the men they can’t afford to satisfy outside wedlock, and who demur chastely – their panic as they realise that they’re powerless to protect their most valuable asset and their pathos as they beseech the men after the event. What particularly fascinates me about Before and After – besides the woodland rapist’s gaping fly revealing pubic hair and softening penis and the ungainly bedchamber rapist’s wig dislodged in the scuffle – is the ingratiation of the women’s reaction to the rape. Rather than escaping to raise the alarm, she abjectly reaches for him. Is she supposed to be beseeching him not to compromise her reputation, for a proposal of marriage (and does this force her to subdue her horror) or, in the case of the woodland woman, for the post-coital tenderness all of the men so manifestly fail to evince? The assault leaves the woodland woman flushed and aroused with half-shut eyes and lips parted – you get the impression that while he is spent her desire has only just awakened. While each of the rapists are glassy-eyed with regret – although the woodland rapist seems at first to be holding the woman’s hand in dutiful affection there’s something in his posture which suggests that he may be encouraging her to her feet. The police would probably get a lot out of using these pictures in training around rape, where they have an appalling reputation.

Today we went to a restaurant in Chigwell Row called Blubeckers as suggested by Matt’s mum and dad. Fruit for starters with coulis. Could have had potato skins. Alright, but what was I going to have for dessert? (Nothing, and they forgot to leave off the creme fraiche the first time.) They had a vegan dish with which they’d evidently decided to kill two birds with one stone, because it was also the wheat-free dish. I ate it and it was unremarkable, practically tasteless lentil and spinach cottage pie (the mash topping wasn’t even golden). My coffee cup had lipstick on it. Everybody else enjoyed theirs – good, but I’m not satisfied by the mere presence of an animal-free dish – it also has to taste good. The vegetables were alright in terms of variety, but overcooked. Blubeckers in Chigwell is a nice place – lovely setting, but lacksadaisical if friendly staff.

Then we walked through Hainault Forest to the farm where I saw a bunny with head hair, stroked a goat and saw both a little owl and three barn owls – first time for me. Now it’s 8 and the weekend is over :-(. Dinnertime.

Holiday – Mark Reid’s Inn Way round the Lake District

Wasn’t particularly keen to do this 7-day 90-mile (well, 99.5 mile) 44 ‘pub crawl with altitude’ but in retrospect I can’t imagine a more captivating holiday in the lakes.

The first thing I noticed as we took the taxi (thanks to Virgin or Network Rail we missed the final YHA shuttle of the night) between Windermere and Ambleside was the savage mountain relief against the dusk. We ate that night at Zeffirelli’s which is attached to the cinema and looks after vegans well.

On the first day we left our 3-bed YHA room (101, bunk, single, wetroom shower and washstand) overlooking the lake at about 10, stopping in Ambleside to buy lunch from Lucy’s (seeds, bhajis, samosas, quiche. From there we walked in warm sun to Rosthwaite over two high peaks the first of which was Heron Pike. We had trouble getting off that one and ended up just picking our way down the hillside. Then we stopped at Grasmere and ate our lunch surreptitiously in the garden of The Swan, a MacDonalds hotel on the outskirts. We kept a running joke about Brian’s next girlfriend being a mop from a gipsy fair with little clothespegs for hands. Then we climbed along a remote, rocky, cloud-chased valley up to Grasmere Common and Greenup Edge. Brian had his only accident, a hard fall off a slippy stone onto his knee. Later he said he wasn’t sure at that time if he was going to be able to continue. The way down to Rosthwaite was steep stone steps – I was trying to save my knees so was pretty slow. Under Eagle Crag, in the evening’s golden haze was most charming sight – a brave blue little tent pitched on a rare bit of flat ground next to a stoney-bedded stream. There were packs outside and laughter inside. We crept past unnoticed. Two peaks was a bit much to ask on the first day – I was very unfit and recovering from my virus. I don’t quite know what to say about the Scafell Hotel in Rosthwaite. The room was nice – mountain views through two windows, and a heated towel rail. My prior warning about being vegan had not percolated to the kitchen but at the same time as being utterly unprepared we were served by an unhelpfully solicitous (and it wasn’t her fault that I found her unhelpful, either) former vegan who took an unbelievably stringent line on what I could eat. No bread (chicken feathers!), no margarine and no rasberry coulis (she said E numbers means something porcine). It became obvious that her pronouncements were news to me, but that didn’t stop her. No wonder she’d given up. I eventually received a bowl of salad topped by an apple cut into the shape of a swan. (I began to get paranoid.) Matt and B were served the same vegetables as me, which meant they had to forego the garlic butter and lemon butter. The next day I insisted on eating the hotel bread and my packed lunch showed evidence of effort (though the oily salad they had packed so carefully blew into my face on top of Cat Bells and they had tried to withhold the apple for indeterminate vegan reasons). Here lies the problem: it’s early days for my vegan diet and I’m only gradually edging out the obscure additives which strict vegans veto. It’s not surprising that the kitchen staff (underpaid, possibly, at £75.00 for one night’s dinner, bed and breakfast) should resent having to cater for such freeform and morally impenetrable dietary requirements? How do you explain what you do or don’t eat to somebody who is not a vegan but knows more about animal ingredients than many vegans do? I was pretty inconsistent about what I choose to turn a blind eye towards in bought meals. I wouldn’t touch any advertised dish containing egg, milk or meat but I didn’t ask about the ingredients of the bread, for instance – particularly not when I depend on it as my main source of energy on a day-long mountain trek. What I liked about that place, and next day’s, was the custom of serving after-dinner coffee in the lounge. B persuaded a waitress from Easter Europe to teach him how to fold serviettes into waterlily flowers.

The second day was hot and sunny. We climbed up through old slate workings onto High Spy, walked along a dramatic ridge, coming down steeply via Cat Bells which was spoilt (or enhanced if you were B) by some girls selling poor quality home-made flap-jacks to fund a pointless philanthropic trip to Sri Lanka, with enough energy to deviate to the Swinside Inn late afternoon and from there to Braithwaite for a very pleasant sun-drenched pint in the garden of the Coledale Inn. We then walked to Portinscale just outside Keswick and checked into the Derwentwater Hotel. This was our most expensive B&B stay, but with the best breakfast and the most helpful staff. The advertised jacuzzi was in a hotel somewhere else and I didn’t get to go (mainly because G & C whom we met that evening and who had a car didn’t offer to wait for our arrival with enough conviction to make me confident they wouldn’t resent it – besides which we’d been in the pub so there was no reason to expect them to wait around. That evening there was entertainment in the hotel bar from the Autumn Breeze duo. They were extremely good, though I couldn’t convince anybody I was with that I wasn’t being sarcastic because their style was pitched at a much older age group than ours. The bloke on piano sang True Colours magnificently. Then we had a superior Indian meal in Keswick and walked back in the dark night.

The third day took us from Portinscale via Braithwaite (where we should have stayed but it was Easter Saturday and the Lakes were brimming with holiday-makers) to Buttermere. We walked along a ridge from Grisedale Pike, with superb views and a scarp face falling away to our right scoured by a ferocious wind, cracking jokes and getting suntanned, until we had to come down. Weather came suddenly and there were wreaths of cloud between us. I got scared and wanted to follow the other people who were trickling away on the Buttermere side. I investigated a path but Matt called my phone and persuaded me to turn back. The path we took soon turned to loose stones and for the next half hour or forty minutes we were scree surfing on what might well have been a 1:1 slope. I changed out of my sandals at the first opportunity. The half hour after that was on scree and heather at more or less the same gradient. The following half hour was steep rocks giving way to meadow. By the bottom I’d buggered my right knee. That was the second lesson: fitness is about more than your muscular strength and cardiovascular capacity – it’s about sinews, tendons and ligaments. Do you know, I never realised that before. After a comfortable but brief spell on the flat with breathtaking views of the mountains which ring Buttermere drenched in old sunlight, we walked south along the soggy western edge of Crummock water and I was nearly in tears because I had to go slowly whenever I went downwards, because it hurt, because I thought B and M might think I was spoiling things by indulging a little ache, and because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to carry on the next day. At 6.30 we placed an order for food by mobile phone at YHA Buttermere, we arrive by 7 and sat down clean at 7.30. Matt and B had excellent meals – mine was nachos and a pretty useless farfalle with standard tomato sauce – no dessert – but it was short notice I guess (though I had let them know further in advance). The stairs were very difficult. That night we skittered stiffly down the hill into Buttermere so that M & B could drink Black Sheep at the Bridge Hotel. When we walked back it was clear and we could see layers of stars. I wasn’t allowed to leave my full dormitory of women to sleep in M & B’s empty male dorm. One cow kept the light on for about an hour after everybody else had stopped reading (that’s what the lounge is for) and a few of them snored like walruses though jolting the bunk at intervals stopped the woman below me, temporarily at least. For the first time ever I used ear-plugs – wax ones called Quietas from Sainsbury’s which are mouldable but don’t stick to your hair when they fall out. Tolerable breakfast – B started a habit of taking some away with him, this time a bacon sandwich. We had begun to accumulate fruit, which is time-consuming to eat on a mountainside (choking hazard while walking on rough ground besides which you often need your hands when climbing mountains in the lakes) and unappealing at night when all you want to eat is hot and/or stodgy, I find.

On the fourth day I found a stick and relied on it heavily as we walked towards Black Sail pass. We walked along the shore of Buttermere under low cloud and up to Scarth Gap in a fog which hid Wainright’s favourite mountain, Haystacks, entirely from view. There were droplets on every hair on B’s overgrown action-man scalp. At lunchtime we came to England’s most remote and dinkiest Youth Hostel, Black Sail Hut which sleeps 16 and will serve guests dinner and breakfast (no credit cards). It was open but deserted and a cold misty rain was falling as we let ourselves in. We crept around like three goldilockses, made ourselves a cup of tea (as invited by notice) and ate our lunch in the communal room tables with a log burner behind us, games and a stretcher)on the shelves and boots in the rafters above our heads. It must be a haven on a winter’s night – I’d love to stay somewhere like that. There was a cut-down plantation near to the YHA – they were planning to replant with deciduous trees. Then we walked (me painfully slowly, obliged to take a painkiller) down towards Wasdale. B decided I looked too wild-looking to be allowed into the pub first or I’d be slung out for a gipsy – on arrival I noticed that he was right, I looked as if I’d slept on the mountain. The mist was thick and I was far behind limping down a steep and slippery made path when I hear a call behind me and out of the mist to my left hurtled a mountain biker jolting over the rough ground at an exhilarating pace and gradient, stopping just short of a huge steep gully. Two others followed, one slightly less confident. I’ve never seen mountain bikes on a mountain before and remain impressed. We continued down over waterfalls and along the Ennerdale Valley to Wasdale Head, and I had my only fall (apart from the scree surfing) which was onto my back because of a slippy stone, drank a pint (incidentally, I almost never drank a pint, having a taste for martini rosso or cinzano and soda at the time) and ate a sneaky packed lunch at the Wasdale Inn, bought a walking stick (stock?) from the climber’s shop under Scafell Pike, and set off briskly because it was 5pm and we had 5 miles to cover before Boot. Matt promptly fell over a gorse bush on the flat and broke his work phone on a stone – he wasn’t hurt though. My stick was good and it was uphill onto Eskdale Moor with forbidding Wastwater to our right. The moor was so vastly bleak and empty and the weather so oppressive that as we approached Burnmoor Tarn it was even cheering to see stickleback living in the shallow pools which fed it. Nothing but rasping grasses grew near the tarn and on its far side, inhospitable blank-faced Burnmoor Lodge completed an impression of hostility. We were grateful to leave it by dusk and come down into cheerful, lively little Boot with its three inns and strings of fairy lights. Reading the book before dinner, I learnt that the route we’d taken used to be known as the Corpse Road before Wasdale’s tiny church was consecrated and the villagers had to transport their dead to be buried at Boot. Runaway ponies with ghastly burdens are said to tear through the moor at night. The Brooke House Inn was good for vegans with an excellent uncliched carrot and coriander soup followed by stuffed peppers. The staff were great, and the taxidermy at least tasteful. Strange to say that the best places for vegans I’ve visited outside London this year have had their walls festooned with stuffed animals and animal traps. Breakfast was enjoyable – they had margarine for me too, and a good drying room.

The fifth day was grey so we decided to stick to Mark Reid’s route (at that stage Brian realised with violent faux indignation that Matt had deviated significantly thus far to have us zig-zagging from peak to peak in lung-bursting, heart-racing discomfort) and not go for any particularly high places. While Matt and B calibrated their GPSs I wandered ahead towards the church and saw a full-fleeced sheep scale a 5-foot dry-stone wall. It was in the lane between two enclosures and when it saw me coming, it looked up at the top of the wall into the churchyard and sank back on her haunches like a cat. I was complacently thinking “As if” when she suddenly sprang, appearing to cling vertically half-way up the wall, reaching the top with a second leap where she dithered briefly seeking a solid foothold, finally launching herself to the ground. By the time I reached the churchyard to look she’d cleared a second wall into the adjoining field. Superb performance – I predict an abscondment come shearing time. She’ll be known by her enduring fleece. Then we climbed to Ulpha Fell – I couldn’t get the stick to telescope properly and we didn’t dare take it apart – and passed Harter Fell to our left, walking towards Dunnerdale Forest, where I found another stick and spent the next hour picking and chewing off the hand-scouring nobs. Dunnerdale Forest had moved, we think – it was also being replanted to replace the plantation firs with a mix of broad-leafed deciduous trees and we got lost. For three big fields we plunged in boggy, sodden, tufts of coarse grass which hid rocks, holes and cracks. Water wicked from my trouser-legs onto my socks and down into my boots, which remained wet inside for the rest of the day. We broke our journey at the Newfield Inn at Seathwaite which was lovely. We reached the Black Cock Inn in Broughton In Furness without further incident but slowly because of my cursed knee and a crop of blisters on my wet, softened feet. B would come and walk behind me at intervals, which I suspected was to harry me into faster progress but Matt says was for company and morale, a commonplace gesture conferred by strong upon weak members of scout troops. Matt says you can’t win with me, and that may explain why he didn’t adopt the practice 😐 😉 . After slate quarries and a scarey clamber between imposing fallen bits of mountainside and a dry stone wall, we glimpsed the coast and the Esk estuary, after which we came down into Broughton. For dinner I had a slightly better than average Thai dish from the Black Cock, and a half pint of Mountain Man which is alright but a bit low on hops – my favourite, though I didn’t know it then, is Coniston Bluebird. Then we whisked to the King’s Head and somewhere else In Broughton where I had a warm flat Weston’s perry (forget it – sometimes I wonder what is happening to the British palate, though Matt says they’ve always tasted that way, alcopops before there were alcopops) before being locked into the bar of the Black Cock soon after which I withdrew to bed leaving Matt and B to talk about oil rigs and the West Highland Way with the guv.

Day 6 was Broughton to Coniston. That morning I mended my stick by taking it apart and rescrewing the sections together. Uneventful day – we stopped for lunch at Beacon Tarn where Brian ate his breakfast sausage out of a cereal bag, walked through a drab bit of moor (drab because of the telegraph poles maybe), failed to spot any stone circles or other stone age relics, and also failed to find an open pub at Torver, where I changed into my Tevas, which I did whenever possible. I took them into the lake outside Coniston but not for long because you could die of cold that way. We reached Coniston in sunlight, had a pint and headed up to Coniston Holly How, where we had pizza cooked somewhere else because they’d run out of gas. The cook was an exceptionally happy man who lifted his voice in song about loving haddock pie and was lovely about making a vegan meal. We had a shared room – two bunks. I didn’t go to the pub that evening because my leg was a pain, I’d lost my appreciation for drinking and I wanted to read.

Day 7 was Coniston to Ambleside and it was going to take 9 hours. In hazy warm sunlight we climbed past the Coniston Coppermines YH and around a waterfall and up to Swirl How. I was getting pretty fit and my leg was better on the upward climb. We unzipped our lower trouser legs. We figured Prison Band couldn’t be any worse than Grisedale Pike and it wasn’t. We came down to the Three Shires Stone and had lunch, then walked to Red Tarn. The walk down the valley towards the Langdale Pikes was terribly beautiful. At the bottom we turned towards New Dungeon Ghyll and had a pint in the Old Dungeon Inn. As we climbed again towards Ambleside we saw a paraglider spiral off the Langdale Pikes and land in the field outside the pub. Loughrigg Tarn was magical at dusk with its companionable cottages set at respectful distances, its placid sheep, and the brutal mountains silhouetted behind it. We reached the YHA at the very end of the day and I could have continued. We settled into our original room and then ate at Zeffirelli’s again.

Where have I been?

It’s been a very busy week. Oxford for Shock and Beyond on the 22-23 March. This year the Shock was ‘of the Social’ and concerned with social networking in higher education. The following day was the Beyond debate – this year, Beyond the Search Engine, which tackled plagiarism. S and I had a fine time. I had my new work laptop and we were enthroned in a superlatively furbished Said Business School lecture theatre and blogging the proceedings (to work – see my previous post) via the wireless network. We nattered away – shop – at lunchtime and I think I persuaded somebody from education department at Oxford who was about to advertise a couple of “Learning Technologist” posts to advertise for “Educational Developers” instead. Which is a bit of a turnaround, because I can hear myself only last year pronouncing to somebody quite senior and national at a book meeting that I’d rather retrieve the job title than abandon it. Trouble is, I can’t seem to manage to retrieve it. Then we drank ourselves silly and didn’t manage to get to our hotel a fair way up Banbury Rd before everyone had gone to bed but luckily we managed to arrange the key code to get in. This time we had double rooms and they had a wireless network. Am I addicted to being connected? That would be weird for an introvert like me – must remember to ask Tomas about it.

Then I went to Dublin – more accurated I flew to Dublin. I flew for the first time in 6 years and was so moved as we left the runway that I cried a bit. On the way back in the dark as we made our approach into Heathrow I gasped at Docklands and the Isle of Dogs. The London Eye and Piccadilly Circus shone out like two funky badges. CAL ’07 was the reason. Our symposium went down extremely well, although my particular presentation was just scenesetting for the three that followed – very distinct approaches to Design for Learning. What has happened to that JISC programme is quite remarkable – if you’re feeling calculating, it would seem that the Design for Learning (D4L) projects were conceived (by JISC, though not in a rubbing-hands-together-and-cackling sort of way) as helpmeets for the Learning Design (LD) projects – the idea being to harvest practice and turn it into blueprints or models which could be turned into off-the-shelf designs. A number of the D4L people are turning round and declaring that this isn’t working and that there is too much tacit and contingent and human about teaching and about the subject areas themselves to be readily turned into machine code. The exceptions are revealing – objective testing goes down well, as do lessons on things like referencing and handwashing. But what about teaching about nature in Romantic poetry – never seen that.

Dublin was vastly improved on a decade ago and I soon stopped resenting having to be there. Found an unsecured wireless network on the top of St Stephen’s Green shopping centre and downloaded a couple of MP3 guided walks to my SD card and off I went, popping in on Liz in O’Connell St on the way. It was absolutely lovely, I was so contented and it was springtime in Dublin.